The following article appeared on time.com last month and is a HUGE topic in my work with couples. One of the first things I try to teach couples is that memory is faliable and so the “he said/she said” fight where one person opens with “when you said/did _____” and the other person fires right back “THAT’S NOT WHAT I SAID/DID!” to which the other now disbelieving partner yells “Oh my gosh YES IT IS!” followed by something like “I remember EXACTLY what you said, it was Tuesday and we were standing at the kitchen sink and Timmy was watching Sponge Bob and I was making lasagna and you said/did ____!!” Wash, rinse, repeat…
Believe me, watching this cycle is just as frustrating and pointless for the therapist as it is for the participants. If a couple can’t learn to get past this stalemate they are doomed. They will keep arguing without “moving the ball forward” as Dr. Tatkin likes to say. This ongoing stalemate will contribute to both feeling hurt, unheard, invalidated and hopeless. Over time intimacy wanes, distance increases and thoughts of divorce, affairs or falling into addictive patterns creep in.
Interestingly research done by Dr. Gottman indicates that the goal of healthy couples is not to stop fighting. It’s to USE fights for what they are meant for– again, as Dr. Tatkin says– “moving the ball forward”. Each partner needs to feel that their own agenda has been advanced while also NOT harming the other partner. This is a LOT harder than it seems!
I have studied a lot of different theorists and clinicians that work with couples. My absolute favorite is Dr. Stan Tatkin. He is practical, realistic and science-based. What follows here are excerpts from an article that was written by BELINDA LUSCOMBE on 12/12/18. She is an editor-at-large at TIME and interviewed Dr. Tatkin. Luscombe writes about the “inevitable really stupid fight you keep having over who threw whom under the [bus] last time you went over to that person’s place for that thing.” She talked to Stan Tatkin who has just released his new book We Do: Saying Yes to a Relationship of Depth, True Connection and Enduring Love about his experience with couples fighting and his approach, the Psychobiological Approach to Couples Therapy.
Luscombe discusses how Dr.Tatkin “studies couples by filming them during a fight and then doing video microanalysis (a slow-motion, frame-by-frame examination of the footage) to see what’s really going on. Through this analysis, he has found that the human brain has a set of characteristics that can make fights with our loved ones worse—and that we can out-maneuver, to find better resolutions faster.” She states that Dr. Tatkin found predictable errors that partners make, including the following:
And by the way, here is a hint– the right responses to the bold-faced mistakes are in bold italics!!
- People trust their memory too much. Which makes sense. Our memory is US. If you doubt that you are emotionally invested in the reliability of your memory think about why everyone fears dementia. You literally lose your memories and therefore lose yourself, the person you have always been. We do NOT take kindly to people telling us our memory is wrong! As reported by Luscombe, “Even when you’re 100% sure you recall exactly what your spouse did that was so egregious, you’re probably mistaken, says Tatkin. “The way we record experience depends on our state of mind,” he explains. So if we were emotional or stressed when something happened, our recollections can get skewed, and then as we recall it in a heightened emotional state, the brain adds even more new color. “When people fight over memory, they’re both likely wrong in some way,” says Tatkin. “Because of this, it’s usually better to just end the fight and make up, rather than trying to figure out who is correct.” (emphasis added)
- Dr. Tatkin also notes that we naively believe that our experiences are objective. Which means that our partners would have experienced the fight the same way we did. But the thing is, perception is naturally SUBjective. Remember that blue (or was it gold?) dress image that floated around the internet years ago? Remember how bizarre it was to think that someone else could look at that image and see a color different from what you saw? Voila! Perception is subjective. Luscombe reported that Dr. Tatkin said “You know the old “Don’t look at me like that!” “Like what?” “Like you think I’m an idiot.” “I didn’t look at you like that” argument? That’s an example of how perceptions are also unreliable—especially under stress,-. Dr. Tatkin went on to explain that the parts of our brain that help us be careful about what we say and correct our errors is under-resourced in an intense argument. It’s like having spell-check suddenly turn off while writing an essay. You don’t get any warnings anymore that you are making a mistake and so you continue on oblivious that what you are saying may not be true. He goes on to explain that “our brains aren’t working at full capacity” during an argument. “There’s a network of structures that have to talk to each other in order to correct errors,” says Tatkin. “And there has to be enough time and energy for these error-correcting parts of the brain to do their job. When people are upset with each other, they’re moving too fast and they’re under-resourced, meaning that there’s literally not enough blood—oxygen and glucose—going to those areas of the brain.” So if your counterpart believes you looked at him or her in a certain way, it’s best not to expect them to correct a faulty perception right then and there. Just let them know that you love them and don’t think they’re an idiot.
- Dr. Tatkin also told Luscombe that people “[overestimate] how well [they are] communicating.“ She writes that Dr. Tatkin explains “The brain always conserves energy. And that means that it takes shortcuts.” The problem is, the person doing the talking is not aware that they are taking short-cuts because, again, their error-correcting functions are turned off due to the heightened emotional intensity. And worse, both partners ability to receive input is also compromised, so, as Luscombe writes, “People are often not expressing as clearly as they think they are—or not completely understanding the message the person they’re talking to is getting. She notes that Dr. Tatkin says “I may be making clarity errors with you, in thinking that you understand. You, as the listener, may be making mistakes by assuming you understood something, or linking it to something else, that may be a leap too far”. Compound this with the fact that words can be very loaded for one person but not for the other. If you doubt this, tell someone they are “robust” and see what they say! She quotes Dr. Tatkin in saying “Even on a good day, our verbal communication is poor, and we are often misunderstanding each other most of the time. This just speaks to the imperfection of human communication across the world.” So what are we poor, pathetic humans supposed to do with our crummy communication software? Where’s the upgrade? Dr. Tatkin advises “One way around this is to slow down. Check: ‘O.K., do you mean this? Is that what you’re trying to say when you use that word?’” He believes partners should cut each other a little more slack. He likes the phrase a colleague uses: Be curious rather than furious.
- Dr. Tatkin points out that we have become really, really bad at just facing each other when we talk. The problem here is that our brains evolved to decode facial expressions to determine if the person in front of us wants to kill us or have lunch. We rely on these cues to help with the weaknesses of the communication system. So if you are talking to your partner while you unload the dishwasher, and s/he is behind you feeding the baby, trouble may be ahead. Dr. Tatkin explained that “We’re visual animals and while you’re talking, and I’m looking at your eyes and your mouth—which is something we naturally do—I can make many of those corrections” of the misunderstandings that are arising.” We are not usually even aware that we are doing this but trust me, as a couples therapist who has seen many, many couples over the past decade, this is important. Luscombe writes that Dr. Tatkin advises “if we’re on the phone or side to side, or we’re texting, anything and everything can happen, because we can’t verify visually.” So does this mean we are constrained to only talk face-to-face with our partner forever more? How am I going to get anything done? What if I am not even home? Are phone calls out? And god forbid, texts? According to Luscombe’s interview, “Only after people get better at communicating and fighting in close proximity should they even consider working things out via text.” She quotes Dr. Tatkin saying “I’m not saying nobody should ever do that, but I’m saying people who are terrible at this ought to get the other part down first.” So face your partner, put down the cell phone, close the laptop, turn off the television in the room and watch your partner’s face. You will be amazed at how much better you understand them during heated discussions.
- And finally, according to Dr. Tatkin, the goal of arguments is not to win our side! I know, shocking. Dr. Tatkin even goes on to say that compromise is not sufficient. In compromise we both lose something but there is still a feeling that there are 2 sides. The goal is to feel as if there is really only one side. The couple is an indivisible unit. Any solution in which either person loses anything important is not sufficient because the other person should not want to see their partner fall short. Its like your heart agreeing to have the liver removed. The heart is still intact but the body will die. There has to be a fundamental recognition that the couple is interdependent, part of the same overall organism. Luscombe goes on to clarify that “There are, of course, those fights that are not simply a matter of communication but of genuine disagreement. Whether to buy or rent. Which school to send a kid to. Netflix or Amazon Prime. Those arguments take a bit of effort to solve, says Tatkin, who this time says brains can be used productively rather than overridden. These spats are more manageable if you both agree initially that you care about each other and the outcome” according to Dr. Tatkin. He goes on to “[recommend] that each partner present an argument, each acknowledge the validity of the other’s argument and then each offer a solution that builds on the other’s.”(emphasis added). It’s like if I want a beach vacation and you want to go skiing, and we do some research together and find a place where you can lie on the beach and “ski” down sand dunes at a nearby national park. We get something better than just one person’s solution. Luscombe goes on to clarify that “Often, the solution to a disagreement only has to be one that works for right now, and can be adjusted later. According to Dr. Tatkin, “If people see each other as having a mutual stake in the outcome, and that they’re respecting that, and they are giving each other their due, and that they are working towards a win-win, which means not compromise but creativity, bargaining,” says Tatkin, “then they can move the ball forward enough for the next thing, and can take this thing off the table quickly and go have lunch.”
I found Luscombe’s article well-written, clear and very helpful! I recommend reading it and trying to apply these tips in your relationships with other fallible, poorly communicating, subjectively-limited but wonderful human beings. If you want to reach out to her or the editors at time.com contact them at email@example.com.
Wishing you love and connection in all your relationships,
PS If you have found this information helpful or interesting please “tweet” about it on Twitter, re-post it on Facebook or spread it via other social media platforms! Help me spread the word about good mental health resources! Thanks!